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Who Will Douse Delhi’s Flames?

The dead are not spared. A part of Delhi, the national capital of India, has been reduced to ashes. They’ve desecrated a cemetery, mangled vehicles, broken homes, injured people, killed people – 39, as I write this. North East Delhi is a lower middle-class area, the residents are mostly small shopkeepers and labourers.

On February 23, the eve of Donald Trump’s visit, mobs had collected in pockets and started torching houses. Their anger, apparently, was over the anti-CAA and NRC protests. According to the Citizenship Amendment Act, people from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan can seek asylum in India, but only if they are non-Muslim. In North East states like Assam, detention camps have already been built. To serve the government’s purpose, legitimate Muslim residents are being detained as illegal immigrants using the National Register of Citizens. If it is introduced in the country there are fears Muslims will be most affected.

The identification idea was expressed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he said that arsonists could be identified by their clothes. The mobs in Delhi had begun to place saffron flags outside Hindu houses to identity whom to not target.

The rightwing has been on a high. Among them are two members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Anurag Thakur’s chant, “Desh ke gaddaron ko…goli maaron saalon ko (shoot the traitors dead)” has become the go-to anthem of the Hindutva herds.

Kapil Mishra’s role can be directly linked to the present violence. “He threatened to mobilize a mob to clear out the protesters. He said he did not want to create trouble while Mr. Trump was visiting, but he warned the police that as soon as Mr. Trump left India on Tuesday night, his followers would clear the streets if the police did not. Tensions shot up. As Sunday evening approached, gangs of Hindu men and Muslim men began throwing rocks at each other. This quickly degenerated into wider violence, with Hindu residents accusing Muslims of attacking Hindu statues and Muslim residents expressing fear that a Hindu mob was forming to get them.”

Shaheen Bagh has been the fulcrum of the protests; women gathered here day and night to peacefully demonstrate. It spread to other areas and would have continued had the mobs not struck. This was clearly an attempt to derail the protests and to project the brute power of majoritarian politics.

Is the world interested? At the press conference in Delhi, when Donald Trump was asked about the violence a few miles from where he was, he said, “As far as the individual attacks, I heard about it, but I didn’t discuss that with him (PM Modi). That’s up to India.”

Bernie Sanders reacted: “Over 200 million Muslims call India home. Widespread anti-Muslim mob violence has killed at least 27 and injured many more. Trump responds by saying ‘That’s up to India’. This is a failure of leadership on human rights.”

***

A few Muslim protestors were dragged along the ground, beaten up with batons, and made to sing the national anthem – not by the crowd, but by the police.

The complicity of the police force has been evident for a few weeks now. In one chilling incident, a guy aimed his gun at protestors at the Jamia Millia University campus. The cops standing yards away from him merely watched. They watched silently as he shot at a Kashmiri student. Another time, the cops entered the university library and beat up the students. In N.E.Delhi there has been a repeat. Many people have said that the police were helping the goons, or had a tacit arrangement not to interfere. One mob leader said, “Give us permission, that’s all you need to do. You just stand by and watch. We will make sure you don’t get hurt. We’ll settle the score.”

When mobs offer the protect the police, it ceases to even qualify as a police state. It is a gangster state that is asserting its religious identity by using nationalism as a trump card. As happened in Ashok Nagar. They set fire to a mosque, put up a saffron flag on its minaret while waving the national flag; they raised slogans saying, “Hinduon ka Hindustan”, the nation belongs to Hindus. In another mosque, they burned a copy of the Quran, the holy book. A man who probably had lost everything in the violence was collecting its singed pages.

People are stopped at random and asked what their religion is. One man lied that he was Hindu; they asked him to recite the Hanuman Chalisa, a beloved verse for Hindus. He could not. They beat him up.

Mohamed Zubair’s photograph pleading for mercy has become the face of these riots. “They beat me till they broke me. I begged them and they beat me some more, viciously. They made communally charged slurs and took (BJP leader) Kapil Mishra’s name. I don’t remember much. I just hoped my children were safe. I can’t bear to look at my photograph, my legs shiver with pain.”

85-year-old Akbari burnt to death inside her house when they set it on fire. She was too old and frail to run and save her life.

***

After three days of silence, and two days of his ostentatious show with Donald Trump, Narendra Modi woke up to comment on what is happening in Delhi. He did not address the nation nor did he hold a press conference, but he tweeted to say: “Peace and harmony are central to our ethos. I appeal to my sisters and brothers of Delhi to maintain peace and brotherhood at all times. It is important that there is calm and normalcy is restored at the earliest.” There is violence in the streets. People are in hospital and dying. And all he can think of are homilies about harmony. There is no reaching out to the people, no assurances about how such normalcy will be achieved.

There is no one to question him. Arvind Kejriwal of the Opposition Aam Aadmi Party (People’s party), and the chief minister of Delhi, took a bunch of his ministers to Raj Ghat, a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi, every politician’s favourite man for all seasons. Kejriwal has been mimicking Modi by taking a soft Hindutva stance, reciting verses on television and thanking Hanuman, the saviour of Lord Ram, in his victory speech. Politicians in India have to use religious nationalism to appease the majority that constitutes 80 per cent of the population.

The role of mainstream media has been questionable. While the liberals among them give a fair exposure to both sides, as they must, it is the editorialising with such false equivalences that is problematic. There are indeed casualties on both sides, but a pogrom is a clear agenda against a particular group.

There are other casualties. Tahir Hussain, an opposition politician, has been booked for arson and murder because they found petrol bombs on his terrace. Nobody is interested in facts – the fact that he called the police several times because a mob had gathered outside his house and he was taken to a safe place. One is not opposed to an investigation into the truth, but there is a definite bias. Ruling party members who called for the murder of Muslims, that resulted in Delhi burning, are free. The judge who asked the police to issue arrest warrants against them for incendiary speeches has been transferred. Delhi Police has told the high court that FIRs will be registered at an “appropriate time”. Are they waiting for more bloodshed? Is there a casualty quota they have to meet? The matter has been adjourned until April 13. In six weeks, there will be more destruction, evidence will be doctored, witnesses will be silenced, there will be more graves.

And they don’t even spare the dead.

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Farzana Versey can be reached at Cross Connections

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